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Apologia Re Frances

January 30, 2012

It’s humbling how many items of culture & media I can trace back to teasing out ideas from Perfect Lives.  Entire catalogs of music by artists I wouldn’t have known about otherwise, poets & writers whose styles I didn’t take seriously beforehand, thoughts about the (lack of) dignity in working the land; in these areas and more I can pretty directly trace my line of thinking back to researching further something that is tossed off in Perfect Lives or another piece of Robert Ashley’s.

Giordano Bruno is a pretty obvious thread to be pulled in this sense.  Bruno comes up a few times in Perfect Lives, particularly in the Backyard (“I think they burned him.  He was too positive.”), and the opera Improvement revolves around a central metaphor involving the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and the resulting payoff in Hermetic-Cabalist magic (the culmination of which may have been Bruno).  Some of my initial investigations into this area were like a diligent student looking up words he didn’t know in the homework his teacher assigned, just visiting encyclopedias or whatnot.  Once I got a copy of the Perfect Lives libretto, I learned from the notes in the back that there were important connections Bob saw with Frances Yate’s work on Bruno, The Art of Memory, as well as with The Tibetan Book of the Dead.  I picked both up, and think it’s fair to say I didn’t understand either in a straightforward way.  What I can say about the Book of the Dead is that the gist of the repetition worked for me.  I’ve been in situations with ill or dying folks (or animals for that matter) where there seems to be some need to stress that there’s no need to be afraid of the creeps that may seem to be present in/around the act of dying.  I certainly got it as a metaphor.  The Art of Memory I’ve had a harder time with because it seems to me that I ought to be able to get more of it.  Like with a 3D image in a mall in the 90s, and I can’t make my eyes do the right thing.  I know that it’s there, I think I know what I should be learning, but I haven’t gotten it yet.

I just finished rereading Yates’s other big work on Bruno, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.  When I initially read this and The Art of Memory four or five years ago, I felt like I had a deeper connection with GB&tHT.  TAoM felt really indecipherable to me.  The former is constructed in a wonderfully slow & deliberate way so that you get a firm sense of the Hermetic tradition before Bruno even enters the picture (and she carries on the fate of the tradition after GB got all burnt up in 1600).  My problem with TAoM was that I felt like I missed some critical early part where she more or less revealed what the art of memory was (this is probably not the case, I don’t think she comes close to revealing it, if that were possible).  For the rest of the book, she’s talking about it, but I never had a sense of what it entailed.  Something about this book wasn’t concrete enough for me, and I realize that it’s my problem (nu, it’s about obscure mental practices of the Renaissance, you expect it to be low hanging fruit?) Maybe it’s a little like someone really wanting to comprehend brend but not being able to make the leap.  Or something more religious.  Somewhere along the line I also read a translation of Bruno’s Lo Spaccio del Bestia Triunfante (The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast), and I really didn’t get much from that either, seemed like a list of things in one of the few ways I don’t find lists compelling.  Entertaining for a few pages here & there, but not something I could get a hold of in the deeper parts of my skull.

I wanted to reread GB&tHT because I felt like I couldn’t actually remember anything about Bruno after half a decade.  I remembered some of the general magus-y beeswax, but I couldn’t differentiate between the various mages mentioned, and for a guy who comes up a lot I didn’t have much to say about him.  The punchline of my reread is that after spending about a month reading it, I don’t think I learned anything about what Bruno thought.  I’m caught up on his biography again, and I got a ton out of the early chapters on Ficino, Pico, & Cornelius Agrippa, but all the Bruno stuff just went right over my head, or outta my brain, or the never entered in the first place.  I guess there’s a few possibilities:

a.) I just don’t get anything about his philosophy/religion/cultural practice

b.) Yates is actually a terrible writer

c.) I need to read someone other than Yates on the subject (ie she’s a good writer I just don’t get her)

d.) maybe I’m not properly interested/invested in the subject

I doubt it’s B.  I do really recommend reading her book.  All manner of things you just never knew about are in there.  Like the following:

This is something that I can work with in terms of telling stories of the psyches of the past:  Imagine you’re looking at the bones of the chicken you’re eating and you discover the emblem of the Jupiter (or whatever).  You see it because you think holy symbols are objective!  They’re in nature!  And you think the same about language!  You think there’s something innate in nature about, say, the Hebrew letter vav and all it represents.  THIS IS CRAZY BISCUITS BUT IT’S INSPIRING THAT HUMANS THOUGHT LIKE THIS!  This is why I think the Yates book is wonderful.  Not sure about the idea of “operating”, but I do like the idea of Orphic songs (magical songs handed down from Orpheus & others) are magic – that acting can change the states of things.

This theme of things being innate in nature, or human-constructed ideas perfectly describing nature, brings me to another thread teased out of Perfect Lives.  I can’t remember where I read something about Marie-Louise von Franz’s On Synchronization and Divination relating to Perfect Lives (maybe Kyle Gann said that?), but I picked this book up as well.  There were a few memorable moments looking on the bookshelf behind the kids section in the Union Square Barnes & Noble for this one, with the half-hearted assistance of some confused salespeople.  But I got it.

Anyway, this book & Jung’s writings on the Acausal Principle were interesting to me for a lot of reasons, but it seems to tangential to Perfect Lives & Bob’s work in general.  Maybe not in some ways.  There’s something very much of this book’s feel in Now Eleanor’s Idea – “the approach of the end of the world feeling” is something common throughout the Ashley oeuvre.

But the ideas themselves are just lovely, just like the early part of the Yates book.  Here’s a choice excerpt from the von Franz.

After all this teasing, I guess I feel like I might have more tools to look at alternate forms of logic, reasoning, thinking, etc. in a broad sense.  I don’t know that I have a better understanding of the piece, which was maybe the initial goal but now seems pretty moot.  I guess I’ve shifted from trying to understand something like a piece of Bob’s directly, by effort & force, and gone for more of a let it wash over me and then start digesting once it’s inside of me approach.  Interesting, as always, to do a little archeology on the workings of one’s brain.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 4, 2012 5:41 pm

    I read (half of) The Art of Memory a year or two for the roughly the same reasons. I actually think I was trying to see if understanding Bruno’s astronomical theories could tell me where 28,278,466 comes from, neurotic as that sounds. The source is still unknown and I’m still convinced it’s Bruno related though I don’t even think Ashley was reading Yates when he wrote Public Opinion.

    more on topic: I think the key to enjoying Yates’ book is appreciating the awesome fact that memory was thought of as an art for so many centuries. The book is more or less a historical account of the techniques people have used to construct memory palaces (with lengthy tangents, I felt) which are eerily similar from Cicero to Bruno and beyond. She mostly avoids getting philosophical, which is pleasantly surprising. It’s amazing to conceptualize a world in which memory is understood in such a richly technical way.

    I love this sort of ashley trivia/literary connections. Keep em coming.

  2. February 5, 2012 1:01 am

    Kyle (right?) –
    Thanks for the response!
    There’s something powerful to wanting to get to the bottom of the numbers, the names, all that jazz. That resonates with me too, the detective work. I’ve found that learning some of these things from direct conversation with Bob is way fascinating but often really non-linear or unexpected, which is differently delightful.
    I think these days I’m more at the point of wanting to absorb stuff to get into the mind frame – how do you think when you’ve been reading Frances Yates a lot, what’s the ballpark of thoughts that might engender. Seems like you got a lot from visiting that ballpark, which is cool. Brian really found a lot in reading the Art of Memory last summer. I hope I get there myself.
    Anyway, more understanding through ballparking!

  3. February 5, 2012 12:48 pm

    I think, finally, after years of wondering why Yates is so difficult, that she is explaining or trying to explain things that we can know only from reading words. (In contrast to Ingrid Rowland — biography of Bruno — who can explain everything from that time that we can see. Big difference. McLuhan says that understanding things by seeing is the goal of the bourgeois mind.)

    That’s the problem with scores in music.

    I keep reading Yates and it gets more rewarding, though not easier. When she gets into explaining something you can read and that nobody understands, it’s like a dog with a bone. She just worries it without caring whether you can or cannot understand what she is saying.

    Also — something I think I finally understand — the reason that the Church was so against the NeoPlatonists is that Augustine ruled that, in the Egyptian tradition, certain behaviors (actions) could make the icons come “alive” — they could bring forth spirits. And since everything had to come from the Church, those spirits must be bad guys.

    The Art of Memory is hard for me, because I don’t know any of the texts that were to be memorized.

    Also, Yates says that she never tried to master the art of memory. Which is puzzling at first. Then you understand that the art of memory is just a waste of time now.

    It will take a long time for me to understand Yates. It will take a long time for me to understand Bruno.

  4. February 6, 2012 11:22 am

    Thanks for the thoughts, Bob.
    I like how you describe Yates’s mindset. There’s something very interesting going on in her head, regardless of how she communicates it. Part of the fun I’ve had reading her work has been getting a picture of who she was (I’ve also been reading a lot of heroic portraits of scholar/researchers of the early 20th C lately, so I’m inclined to dramatize her work).
    There’s that Einstein quote about how remembering phone numbers is a waste of brain function, and that always bummed me out a little – I’ve very well equipped for remember such minutiae. Long texts are harder, but how attractive it is to flirt with mastery over the obsolete!

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